COACH: Dan Mullen (first season).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in SEC (tied for fifth in SEC West).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 80th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Mississippi State's quarterback play largely has been abysmal for the past decade, but Tyson Lee's showing in '08 provides reason for hope. He threw five touchdown passes and just two interceptions in the final month of last season. Lee also passed for 1,519 yards – modest numbers, no doubt, but they still represent considerable improvement: That was the most passing yards by a Mississippi State quarterback in five seasons. Further, Lee seemed to make strides under new coach Dan Mullen's tutelage this spring.
STAR POWER: RB Anthony Dixon is one of the best in the SEC. He rushed for 869 yards in '08 despite running behind a lackluster line and with little help from the passing game. He needs 627 yards to set the school career rushing record.
STRENGTHS: The offense looks to have undergone a needed revamping with Mullen's arrival. The receiving corps figures to be upgraded significantly with junior college transfer Leon Berry and speedy redshirt freshman O'Neal Wilder, and Brandon McRae is coming off a 51-catch year. Dixon has 1,000-yard potential. If LB Jamar Chaney has recovered from a knee injury, he will be one of the best at his position in the SEC. The kick coverage was excellent last season.
WEAKNESSES: The offensive line allowed 37 sacks in '08; only five teams in the nation gave up more, so improvement obviously is needed. The linemen need to improve their run blocking, too. Despite Dixon's presence, Mississippi State averaged just about 3 yards per carry last season. The Bulldogs also need to bolster their run defense after allowing 19 rushing touchdowns. That's where Chaney's return can help, but three-fourths of the defensive line will be new. The Bulldogs were good against the pass last season, but three-fourths of the secondary will be new. Special teams could be problematic; there will be a new kicker, a new punter and a new return man, and each is a junior college transfer. The Bulldogs also need to improve their punt coverage.
THE BUZZ: To say Mississippi State's offense has been lethargic lately is being kind. The Bulldogs have averaged fewer than 19 points per game in seven of the past eight seasons. Mullen's arrival boosts hope for a reversal of fortune. As an assistant to Urban Meyer, Mullen was part of some exciting offenses at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, and he brings his expertise of the spread to Starkville. Mississippi State's offense won't look like Florida's of last season, but the hope is that it won't look like Mississippi State's of last season, either. There will be seven new starters on defense, so there could be some issues there. Three of the first four games are against SEC foes and four of the first six are against teams that went bowling last season, so there could be some growing pains on defense.
COACH: Mike Sherman (4-8 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in Big 12 (tied for fifth in Big 12 South).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 83rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The running game has struggled mightily recently, yet there is reason for optimism with the arrival of highly touted freshman Christine Michael. Michael, the nation's No. 3 running back in the '09 recruiting class, has a tremendous chance to establish himself right away with Mike Goodson gone to the NFL and Jorvorskie Lane completing his eligibility. The Aggies' top returning rusher netted fewer than 400 yards a year ago, so more production is needed there. Michael could provide it. Sophomore Cyrus Gray likely will go into the season as the starter, and he has some talent. In addition, watch out for junior Von Miller, who will man the "Jack" spot, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position. The position is designed to produce pressure on the quarterback; Miller had 3.5 sacks last season.
STAR POWER: Junior QB Jerrod Johnson didn't begin the season as the Aggies' starter, but he finished that way. He threw 21 touchdown passes, the most in A&M history. He threw at least three TD passes in three of the Aggies' four victories and passed for more than 2,400 yards on the season. That was with freshman receivers, a porous offensive line and little previous playing experience. With a year of significant action under his belt and some seasoned receivers, he should have a stronger campaign this time. But he'll have to hold off a challenge from Ryan Tannehill, a proven wide receiver who aspires to throw passes rather than catch them. Tannehill likely will play receiver if he doesn't beat out Johnson.
STRENGTHS: Sophomore WR Jeff Fuller had an excellent debut season with 50 catches, nine of which went for touchdowns. And he wasn't even the Aggies' most impressive freshman receiver last year. Tannehill, who was a redshirt, led the Aggies with 55 catches and 844 receiving yards. That's a heck of a one-two punch, even in the receiver-rich Big 12. Jamie McCoy is a productive tight end.
WEAKNESSES: A year of experience and an offseason in the weight room should result in marked improvement for the offensive line, right? Well, the Aggies certainly hope so. The line was atrocious in'08; A&M ranked 114th in the nation in rushing offense and 115th in sacks allowed. Ouch. Four starters return. Is that a good thing? The defense wasn't much better. In fact, the Aggies ranked 114th against the run and managed only 16 sacks. The pass rush is in dire need of an upgrade. The linebackers must play much better. There is one returning starter in the secondary, and FS Jordan Pugh was a cornerback last season.
THE BUZZ: A decade ago, A&M was a championship contender in the Big 12. Now, the Aggies can't even count on a victory over Baylor, which spanked A&M by 20 points in '08. A&M's passing offense finally is catching up with the rest of the wide-open Big 12, but the Aggies need vast improvement on the lines. No coach should be on the hot seat after just one season, but the pressure on Mike Sherman may rise rapidly if the Aggies don't get off to a quick start. Four of the first five games are at home and the other is a neutral-site meeting. One good thing: The Big 12 North opponents for the Aggies are the three division teams that didn't go to bowls last season.
COACH: Dave Clawson (first season; 58-49 in nine seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 4-4 in MAC (tied for second in MAC East).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 90th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Falcons will need a big season from LB Jerett Sanderson because he's the only returning starter from the front seven on defense. Mighty-mite sophomore TB Willie Geter, a 5-foot-7, 167-pounder who played at prep powerhouse Miami Pace, made the most of his 45 carries last season and could be poised for a breakthrough year. Geter averaged 6.7 yards per carry as a freshman last fall and finished the season by gaining 160 yards against Toledo.
STAR POWER: The MAC featured so many quality quarterbacks last season that Tyler Sheehan's big year flew under the radar. Sheehan, a senior, completed 66.8 percent of his passes – the second-highest total in school history – while throwing for 2,610 yards and 20 touchdowns. Sheehan also can hurt defenses with his legs. He rushed for 109 yards in a victory over Kent and ran for 70 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo.
STRENGTHS: Bowling Green shouldn't have much trouble putting points on the board. Sheehan will be throwing to a receiving corps that returns three guys (Freddie Barnes, Tyrone Pronty and Chris Wright) who caught at least 20 passes last season. The Falcons also return three starters on the offensive line. While the defense will be a major concern this season, Jahmal Brown and P.J. Mahone give the Falcons a pair of safeties who combined for 178 tackles last season.
WEAKNESSES: Brown and Mahone may have to make at least that many tackles again this season because the Falcons don't have much experience elsewhere on the defense. Sanderson is the defense's only other returning starter. Bowling Green has the misfortune of breaking in two first-year starting cornerbacks, which is asking for trouble in a league with so many talented quarterbacks. The lack of any returning starters on the defensive line also could make Bowling Green vulnerable against the run.
THE BUZZ: New coach Dave Clawson struggled as Tennessee's offensive coordinator last season, but he had plenty of success before that as coach at Fordham and Richmond. He is taking over a good situation at Bowling Green. The two most talented teams in the MAC – Central Michigan and Western Michigan – are in the Western Division, which leaves the East wide open. If Bowling Green's defense grows up in a hurry, the Falcons might steal the division title. Bowling Green's firepower on offense and inexperience on defense could lead to plenty of shootouts this season. The question is whether Sheehan and Co. will be good enough to outscore teams.
COACH: Derek Dooley (13-12 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in WAC (tied for second in league). Beat Northern Illinois in the Independence Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 71st.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The quarterback competition will be intriguing. Incumbent starter Ross Jenkins passed for just 1,155 yards and seven touchdowns last season, but the Bulldogs went 6-2 with him running the offense. Transfers Steve Ensminger (from Auburn) and Randy Hardin (from Southern Miss) will challenge for the job.
STAR POWER: Phillip Livas (aka "Saturday Night Livas") is a big play waiting to happen as a receiver and kick returner. He led the WAC in all-purpose yards last season, and scored touchdowns via runs, receptions, and kickoff and punt returns, one of just a handful of players to accomplish that feat. Six of his seven touchdowns covered at last 44 yards. Defensively, T D'Anthony Smith and FS Antonio Baker have All-WAC credentials.
STRENGTHS: RB Daniel Porter has emerged as one of the WAC's top offensive threats. A year ago, he ranked second in the conference with 1,164 rushing yards, with more than half of them in the last six games. The Bulldogs won all five games in which he exceeded 100 yards. Louisiana Tech was second in the WAC in rushing last season and should continue to be successful with all five offensive line starters back. Led by Smith, the defensive front was good against the run. The return teams are in good hands with Livas, and the coverage teams were excellent last season.
WEAKNESSES: Despite the overall success with Jenkins at quarterback, the Bulldogs' passing game struggled. He completed just more than 50 percent of his attempts and only once exceeded 200 yards passing. Louisiana Tech was also vulnerable against the pass and ranked 113th in the nation in pass defense. The Bulldogs hope new cornerback starters Olajuwan Paige and Terry Carter provide an upgrade. Paige is a junior college transfer who enrolled early. There's a new kicker and a new punter, both redshirt freshmen, so that bears watching.
THE BUZZ: Just three seasons after struggling to a three-win finish, Louisiana Tech has climbed to upper-division status and is a sleeper contender in the WAC championship race. The Bulldogs are proven and experienced. The running game is solid, the defense is strong against the run and the special teams are excellent. But the passing offense raises red flags. Louisiana Tech probably isn't ready to challenge Boise State for conference supremacy. But the Bulldogs do catch Boise State on a Friday night in Ruston. The Bulldogs haven't made back-to-back postseason appearances since 1973 and '74, but that's a legitimate goal this season.
COACH: Steve Kragthorpe (11-13 in two seasons; 40-35 in six seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 1-6 in Big East (tied for seventh in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 77th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Louisville built a nice quarterback tradition under John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino. That has hit a lull during Steve Kragthorpe's tenure. Hunter Cantwell was unspectacular last season and the incoming group doesn't inspire much confidence. North Carolina State transfer Justin Burke and junior college transfer Adam Froman will be the top two in the fall. Whoever starts can't be sloppy with the football. Cantwell threw 16 interceptions last season, the most for a Louisville quarterback since 1994. The Cardinals were minus-12 in turnover margin last season and went 0-7 in games when they didn't win the turnover battle.
STAR POWER: Pint-sized playmakers have a home at Louisville. RB Victor Anderson rushed for 1,047 yards and eight touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last season, and Doug Beaumont was the Cardinals' top receiver with 62 catches for 750 yards. Both are 5 feet 9. But Anderson averaged only 69 rushing yards against Big East competition, compared to 113 yards against Louisville's soft non-conference schedule, and Beaumont didn't catch a touchdown pass.
STRENGTHS: Linebacker looked to be a mess before last season, but as it turned out, they played well. All three starters are back, plus the key backups. The leader is Jon Dempsey, who had 80 tackles and eight tackles for loss. Brandon Heath was a Rivals100 safety in the 2006 class who now is an outside linebacker. The offensive line lost draftees George Bussey and Eric Wood, a first-round pick, but four linemen have experience. T Jeff Adams and G Abdul Kuyateh started all season, while T Greg Tomczyk and G Mark Wetterer started six games apiece.
WEAKNESSES: Former Utah State coach Brent Guy is Louisville's third defensive coordinator in three seasons following the departure of Ron English, who took over as Eastern Michigan's coach. Guy will have to work with a line and a secondary in desperate need of improvement. To wit, two returning starters (tackle L.D. Scott and strong safety Daniel Covington) are not first-stringers entering the fall. The Cardinals need to find a pass rush after finishing last in the league in sacks last season. There's more hope in the secondary, where Johnny Patrick has developed into a dependable corner and FS Richard Raglin received a fifth year of eligibility.
THE BUZZ: If three years is the new five for coaches, Kragthorpe is in trouble. He is entering his third season with an 11-13 record following successful runs by Smith and Petrino. Kragthorpe has cleaned up the roster during his tenure, losing roughly two dozen malcontents and/or trouble-makers in the process. He's also had massive turnover on his staff during his tenure. He has six new assistants this season and will handle the offensive coordinator duties himself. No doubt he's feeling the pressure. Following the season opener against hapless Indiana State, Louisville plays six consecutive games against teams that went bowling last season, with four of those on the road. A team with issues doesn't need this schedule.